Back in 2017, Gerald Slavet had a light-bulb moment.
“I realized that there was no central platform for Jewish arts and culture, someplace to make it available and that ensured a certain quality,” he said in a recent phone call.
“If you google ‘klezmer’ you get 10,000 results, and you have to search through them,” he continued.
Actually, it’s 5,970,000 results, but that only bolsters his point: an Internet search is long on quantity and short on quality. But what if there were a place to aggregate and distribute the best of Jewish arts and culture? What if it were curated by experts to ensure quality, and searchable by topic for ease of use?
As a board member and founder of Boston’s Jewish Arts Collaborative, or JArts, Slavet was in a position to get the ball rolling. The moment came at the onset of the pandemic in March of 2020, when The Klarman Family Foundation generously gave its grantees in Massachusetts free consulting time with TDC, a nonprofit consulting firm, to help keep their footing in a time of upheaval.
According to Slavet, “Their big question was, ‘What are you doing with the Internet?’”
JArts Executive Director Laura Mandel began developing an ambitious digital hub to serve as a distribution center for a curated selection of international Jewish arts and culture—architecture, dance, music, literary works, visual arts, and more. After two years of hard work, they’ve now launched a beta version, Kolture.org.
Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff installs a historic mezuzah at the Vice President’s residence.Read about the object on Kolture.org. Photo: The White House, via The Magnes
How it works
Mandel and editor Sarah Dauer assembled a team of curators—organizations like the Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Language Project and The National Library of Israel, and individual artists such as Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell, a musician and Yiddishist, and author Judy Bolton-Fasman.
Many are part of the CANVAS family—networks like LABA and Reboot, as well as Yona Verwer, Director of Jewish Art Salon, and Rebecca Guber, Founding Director of The Neighborhood and Asylum Arts. (You can see the full list of curators here.)
The curators have been populating the database with artistic works from their area of expertise. Dauer also invites curators to submit works based on a monthly theme.
December’s theme was Hanukkah, for obvious reasons. January’s themes are “Myth, Mysticism, and Kabbalah” and “Earth-based Judaism and Environmental Justice”; February’s is “Purim Beyond the Spiel.”
Currently there are over 150 pieces on the website, with three or four more added each week—a measured accretion to help maintain a high level of quality.
More than a database
Kolture distinguishes itself for a number of reasons. First and foremost, as Slavet pointed out, before Kolture, there has never been a central, easy-to-find place to browse a curated selection of Jewish arts and culture with this range of art forms and mediums.
Kolture also commissions thoughtful and entertaining essays to accompany certain works or themes. Ori Z Soltes, a distinguished writer and educator, contributed the informative five-part essay Hanukkah: The Story You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School. Francesco Spagnolo, Curator of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, wrote an interesting piece on the mezuzah that adorns the doorpost of Number One Observatory Circle—that is, the Vice President’s residence, whose husband is the first Jewish spouse of a Vice President in the history of the United States.
A final reason to like Kolture: all curators are paid $500 for their time and expertise, and they are encouraged to share the honorarium with living artists when their work is featured.
“We want more people to recognize that artists and curators should be paid,” Dauer said.
Israeli singer-songwriter Tamar Radah. Kolture.org combines curated music, video, visual art, literature and more for a unique Jewish arts and culture experience.
“Beyond the bagel”
One of the many interesting aspects of Kolture is how open it will be to a variety of users.
Mandel sees Kolture as a hub for Jewish educators and leaders of Jewish organizations:
“It’s a tool for helping communities to reimagine Jewish holidays, or for understanding Israel and antisemitism and other hot-button issues.”
The curated works under the theme of “antisemitism,” for example, are less didactic than prompts for conversation and reflection, such as a short film on the Holocaust survivors of Staten Island, and Fritz Ascher’s 1916 painting The Golem, a striking depiction of the legend.
Dauer stressed ideas of access and diversity.
“We’re thinking of the isolated synagogue in the middle of the U.S who doesn’t have easy access to diverse Jewish expressions of Jewish arts and culture. And with our content we want to go beyond the bagel, beyond ashkenormativity, to address the diversity of Jewish identity and the Jewish experience.”
Future plans for Kolture include finding ways to connect artists with commissions. The team also plans to introduce geotagging, so users will be able to find local artists or works.
Individuals can of course simply register and start clicking (which is how I found this fascinating brief video on the Biblical associations of hummus).
You can also follow Kolture’s Instagram and scroll to the bottom of the home page to sign up for its newsletter.
“The barriers are few,” Slavet said, about the future of Kolture. “The potential audience is broad because you don’t have to be observant or Reconstructionist or a corned-beef sandwich Jew. And the content is broad, which means we’ll be seeing work from all over the world.”
Support Jewish arts and culture. Donate to CANVAS today.